Light and Darkness

Long past midnight I am still sitting at the mouth of the tent, welcoming the darkness and listening to the hushed sounds of night. In the dark the other senses come to life, especially hearing. This is a more intimate sense than sight. Sight is detachment, observation; and the English language has an absurd bias in its favour: we even go so far as to say, "I see what you are saying!" But hearing is a kind of communion.

I read with enthusiasm many years ago (but I recall it now with greater sobriety) that at the birth of modern science in Renaissance times there was a conscious choice of sight over the other senses. Galileo wrote, "I hold that there exists nothing in external bodies for exciting in us tastes, odours and sounds other than sizes, shapes, numbers, and slow and swift motions; and I conclude that if the ears, tongue and nose were removed, then shape, number and motion would remain but there would be no odours, tastes or sounds, which apart from living beings I believe to be nothing but words." Sight, in Galileo's world, is the sense to rely on; it tells you how the world would look even if you were not in it. The world is outside you, and you are an eye. This way of relating to the world became second nature and continued through the centuries. The Newtonian world was a strangely silent one. Language itself was turned into visible lines, as in a library, and even God was not allowed to speak. God was the silent architect, and was further reduced to a ‘Force' in the eighteenth century.

See what happens when Galileo pulls off your ears! You can no longer believe in the God who speaks. Nor can you praise or even curse God, because Galileo has also stolen your tongue!

In contrast to this, a Zimbabwean friend told me that the Shona language has a bias towards hearing: "I hear sadness, I hear joy, I hear a pain." There is more to the world, she said, than meets the eye.

In Zen meditation it is recommended to half-close the eyes. This is a sensible practice: not staring and not blindness, not broad daylight and not pitch darkness. There is something right about Milton's "dim religious light" - though ironically he was blind. Most people prefer candlelight to electric light when they pray: it does not obliterate darkness; it respects the shadows. When you are deep in thought you instinctively half-close the eyes, as if to say: "For a while let me exist from inner resources."  It is like closing the door (or the half-door) of one's house against too much public life.

Here in this darkened lakeland “there may be spoken to me a secret word” (Meister Eckhart).

From Take Nothing for the Journey: Meditations on Time and Place, Donagh O'Shea
(Dominican Publications, Dublin, 1990; 2nd ed. 2012)

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